A Beacon of Hope

The following is a speech given by Special Olympics Massachusetts athlete and Global Messenger Lauren Hopper to Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. 

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”. This phrase has been resonating through my mind; lending me the strength and the courage to come speak with you all today. In ancient Rome these words were spoken by gladiators to prepare themselves for the arena. In Special Olympics, these words are spoken by the athletes, as the athlete’s oath, to prepare themselves for competition. Hello Everyone. My name is Lauren Hopper. I have been an athlete in the Special Olympics for 13 years. Special Olympics is a worldwide program that serves individuals with intellectual disabilities ages 8 and up. Special Olympics Massachusetts offers training and competition in 27 sports year round. This gives athletes a variety of activities to choose from and an opportunity to stay physically active at all times. Special Olympics has something for every ability level and each year athletes get better in their sport. Longer races, faster times, improved technique, a smoother back hand or jump shot. This instills confidence and allows the athletes to come out of their comfort zone and try new things. However, anyone can become involved even if they don’t have a disability. Unified partners, coaches, officials, volunteers and opportunities to participate in fundraising events, like over the edge, polar plunge and 5K races. This shows that Special Olympics is all inclusive and values giving equal respect to everyone.

Special Olympics athletes, left to right, Gregg Gallant, Lauren Hopper and Matt Millett.

Special Olympics athletes, left to right, Gregg Gallant, Lauren Hopper and Matt Millett.

The ocean spray diversity vision is to, “Create an inclusive culture in which individual perspectives are valued and differences leveraged for greater opportunities”. Special Olympics was founded with that same vision and through dedication and resourcefulness that vision has been made a reality. The Ocean Spray company website states, “We at Ocean Spray continue to pride ourselves on the tradition of innovation and resourcefulness.” Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver during a time where people with intellectual disabilities were not widely accepted by their community. Since then Special Olympics has introduced and implemented a number of innovative concepts. These include unified sports, where athletes with intellectual disabilities play on the same team alongside athletes without disabilities and the R-Word campaign. Ocean Spray was started by 3 cranberry growers who shared a love of cranberries and wanted to create unique products that others could enjoy. Special Olympics was started as a day camp by a family who shared the love they had for their disabled sister and wanted others to be able experience that unique love. With these humble beginnings Ocean Spray and Special Olympics have both grown and paved the way for new ideas. Just imagine what they could accomplish working together. I am humbled by how much the employees here at Ocean Spray have already taken part in this incredible organization. Thank you all so much. From the bottom of my heart I truly appreciate everything you have done for us athletes.

As Special Olympics is a non-profit organization, it relies heavily on its volunteers to keep everything running smoothly. The generous volunteers and donors are the backbone of this organization, for without them, Special Olympics would not be able to offer all the incredible things they do for their athletes. Being a volunteer isn’t just about donating time, money or equipment, it’s so much more. It will bring a smile to your face long after the event is over.

When my parents chose to sign me up for Special Olympics, I was 10 years old. At that point I was just beginning to have struggles in mainstream life. Special Olympics gave me a safe haven; somewhere I could be myself without fear ridicule. Because of how I looked and how I acted, I rarely found that elsewhere. I acquired a sense of belonging that I had never felt anywhere else. I found people who could look past my exterior and see the real me. Because of my disability I was told that I would never become a functioning member of society. Special Olympics gave me hope. The practices showed me how to follow through with my commitments. The competitions taught me to believe in and prove to myself that I can succeed. Losing a race taught me how to deal with disappointment but to be content with the loss knowing I had given it my very best. Having the option to compete in multiple sports year-round has allowed me to become comfortable in trying new things. I have developed confidence and independence by staying overnight with my team during state tournaments. Helping the younger athletes has given me leadership skills. Inadvertently, Special Olympics has prepared me for life. And, throughout my life, Special Olympics has been a beacon of hope. At times, I have felt like a ship stuck in a storm at sea. All the cargo piled up inside, weighing me down. The angry waves crashing over me. The dark night and storm clouds closing in on all sides. And just when I am on the verge of sinking, a light shines in the distance. As that light grows brighter I stop trying to fight my way through the dark stormy sea and instead allow the light to help and guide me to where I want to be. For if I am a ship lost in a storm at sea then Special Olympics is my lighthouse. When my parents signed me up for Special Olympics they were thinking that it would allow me to continue playing sports; something that I love to do. What they didn’t realize, was that in doing so they were ensuring my future. Special Olympics not only saved my life but it presented me with the ability to live that life fully and to my potential.

Every Special Olympics athlete is unique and each of us gets something different out of being part of this organization. For example. There is a boy on my swim team who when he first joined Special Olympics was in foster care. Because of trauma in his past he was terrified of water. His foster family had a pool and the mother wanted him to be able to swim in case he fell in by accident. She signed him up for Special Olympics because he refused to take swim lessons. The first few practices he would not even go near the water but he still kept coming back every week. The next practice he sat on the pools edge with a life jacket. The practice after that he stood in the shallow end with a coach holding on to him. Every practice there was progression. And when it came time for competition he was able to swim the whole length of the pool by himself. Special Olympics helped him to triumph over his severe trauma.

When I was in middle school, one of my teammates faced constant bullying at school making him miserable. One day I witnessed the bullying and being brave in the attempt, I stood up for him. A few weeks later his mom called mine in tears, saying how much happier he was and that he was starting to make friends. This boy was accepted into Harvard University and is currently attending Clark University for his masters in education. Special Olympics gave him courage, which helped him to rediscover his love of school.

Another one of my teammates is nonverbal and confined to a wheelchair. Despite that her mind is very bright. When she first joined Special Olympics she had a hard time letting her personality shine through. Now, even though she cannot speak and has very little control over her movement she can have an entire conversation just using her personality. For example at a recent unified event she was joking on one of our coaches. Her personality was so contagious that the entire room got in on the conversation, got in on the joke, which of course ended in laughs from everyone. Special Olympics helped her to find a way to express herself.

One of my teammates has a son who was born with a rare genetic disorder. As a young mom with a disability herself she was overwhelmed with the hospitalizations, surgery, diet and supervision her son constantly needed. 2/12 years later she now feels confident in her abilities as a mom. The other athlete’s parents were a wealth of knowledge for her and she even found a new friend; an athlete from a different team who has the same disorder as her son. Special Olympics helped her to become more confident in her ability as a mother and more hopeful for her sons future.

As these examples show you, Special Olympics offers so much more than simply sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities. A 2008 Cone Cooperate Citizenship study found that 85% of Americans have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a cause that they care about. Special Olympics has well over 500,000 athletes in North America alone and each of those athletes has family and friends who have seen firsthand the positive impact Special Olympics has had. Special Olympics is a cause that people care about. The joy that Special Olympics bestows upon those involved is contagious. I chose Special Olympics many years ago and I am standing before you today to tell you That Special Olympics Massachusetts is the right choice. Choose to improve the future. Choose to instill joy. Choose Special Olympics Massachusetts.

Thank you.

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